When I was a child, I was afraid to go to summer camp. Most kids found the prospect exciting and the experience fun, but I dreaded it. What would the activities be like? Who would my counselors be? What other kids were going? Would I be made to swim if I didn’t want to?
After a few days, the camp routine became just that—routine—and I settled down. But transition periods remained challenging for me throughout my adolescence. As adults, many of us still struggle with change—even good change, like starting a new job, moving to a nicer house, or getting married. Just what is it about transition periods we find so challenging and how can we get through them with less stress?
THE GREAT UNKNOWN
In my case, transitions were difficult because they represented a change from the known to the unknown. The unknown, for many of us, feels unsafe. We worry the unknown, once known, will prove to be more than we can handle, a problem we can’t solve. It’s easy to be confident when you know exactly what you’re facing and how to overcome it, but far harder to be confident when what you’re facing is unclear. So we try to learn as many details as we can about whatever new environment we’re about to enter, striving to make the abstract more concrete for the purpose of measuring ourselves against it, of finding ways to minimize any potential dangers.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
But in doing this we sell ourselves short. Why not instead view transition periods as ways to exercise our ability to manage change? If the last time you faced a transition you found yourself a wreck—anxiously overreacting, struggling to get a good night’s sleep, snapping at your loved ones out of fear—why not look upon your next transition as practice. Reflect on and catalog your reactions during transitions as they occur. Then each time you find yourself facing a new one, pick one thing you didn’t do well during your last one. Maybe you belittled your abilities, failing to believe you were up to the job for which you were hired. Maybe you worried incessantly about how you were going to handle all the details of a move. Whatever reaction you had that you’d like to improve, during this next transition focus on it and it alone. Don’t worry about failing to live up to any other expectation. Just strive to improve this one thing. If, when you’re through the transition, you find you didn’t, that’s okay, too. The beauty of viewing transition periods as practice for improving yourself is that you get to keep trying until you do.
- Just do it. It may be a cliche to say that half the battle is just showing up, but cliches are cliches for a specific reason: they’re true. Remind yourself you don’t have to be perfect and that you don’t have to do everything at once. Just getting through a transition is the definition of success.
- Look upon transitions—even negative transitions—as adventures. You can change poison into medicine. Even if you’re fired. Even if you get divorced. Even if you become chronically ill. We all have the innate ability to create value out of hardship, and in so doing often add an enjoyable dimension to our lives we didn’t have before.
- Remake your reputation. A transition is also an opportunity to re-brand yourself. Perhaps you called in sick too much on your last job and want to become a better employee. Perhaps you allowed life’s small inconveniences to irritate you too much and want to become a more carefree person. If you look upon a transition period as an opportunity to change yourself, you’ll be able to introduce a better self to the new people you meet. But take care not to fall prey to the misguided notion that simply by changing your physical location you’ll change anything else about your life. Unless you change yourself, you’ll recreate the same old life you always had, just in a new space.
Transitions are part and parcel of life, in which nothing ever stands still or remains the same. To learn to navigate transitions, therefore, is to learn to navigate life itself. Take the time to reflect on how you handle transitions. Plan ways to improve. Because if you can learn to face transition periods with equanimity, not much else will be left in life to disturb you.
Next week: Listening To Your Inner Voice
This blog is perfect since a huge transition has been happening in my life for over a year now. I found the more I chant the layers of what’s not working in my life anymore including old friendships, relationships, old ways of thinking, self-limiting beliefs, etc. just keep falling away to make room for what I’m suppose to be doing; at first I met this all with resistance but now I’m embracing it and moving on with courage. It’s really scary to jump into the unknown but courage to handle the seasons of my life is really something I’ve been getting up extra early to chant for these days, and it’s been working. I found once I took those first leaps I had more confidence in knowing it’s not so scary when you do. I see transitions more like layers, similar to an onion: the first layer is very challenging to get through. The skin is hard and it can be difficult to break open. But once you do, the skin sheds fast. Once you begin to peel back the layers, there is vast treasure chest of new freedoms you find within yourself and are able to experience, sometimes for the first time and once you break through that there’s no going back. Transitions to me equal freedom. Freedom to experience life fully and appreciate the trials and tribulations with gratitude.
Great piece. Change is difficult even if it’s for the positive. Once you know what you have to do to get there—it’s so much easier the next time.
A friend of Rhea
I so enjoy your writing and thoughts. I work with middle school students who for various reasons have not been successful in traditional school settings. We are presently getting them ready to enter high school next fall. It is interesting and painful to listen to both their anxiety and excitement about leaving their present “safe” atmosphere. They’ve come so far, and I, of course, will dearly miss them and want them to continue their growth. I will share your thoughts with them. Thank you.
Every day our life changes but it’s only when those changes are greater than is usual that we feel a heightened sense of that change. Believing that all happens for a higher good helps me accept all big changes in my life. 🙂
Thanks so much, Alex. I’ve struggled with this much of my life with great anxiety. I’m finally coming to more acceptance of the adventure of change, but wish I had had this type of perspective/guidance earlier on. I will try to translate this for my 13 year old, as we prepare for an overseas trip together. It will be a learning experience for both of us. Judith
A very helpful post, Alex. I’ve commented before about my transition from a healthy, active law professor to a chronically ill person who is mostly house-bound and often bed-bound. It wasn’t until I shifted my perspective and began to see it as an adventure (to use your word) that some measure of joy found its way back into my life. (I sure could have benefited from this post five years ago!).
What I wanted to pick up on here is your idea of treating a transition as practice. I’ve found that, in general, approaching any challenge as practice is helpful, whether it be a transition or an interaction with a difficult person or working on changing an unwholesome habit. Treating it as a practice makes me more mindful of my intentions and of my actions. It also, as you said, provides the opportunity to reflect and keep track and evaluate how I did. And, most important for me, because it’s a practice and not a “test,” I can forgive myself for not carrying out my plan perfectly—after all, I was practicing!
I do appreciate this blog. I especially like the reference to having a chronic illness as a transition. This morning, I was sharing it with a friend. I’ve had a chronic illness (CFFS) for 8 years. I’m a Nichiren Buddhist and these 8 years have provided a wonderful opportunity for me to grow. Any suggestions on how I treat it as “transition?”
Good post, as usual.
I’m in transition in life right now—selling my house and a business, moving to another state, and joining lives with a woman I love very deeply. This transition was prompted by a significant event last year that forced me to really look at my way of being in the world and in relationship with my fiance. Our breakup and reconciliation offered me the great challenge(s) of looking at myself in the mirror and accepting responsibility for how I act and how I affect others. And, it set the stage for me to be accountable to in my relationship with her. It was really hard at first, but the process of examining my ways led me to so many new areas of knowledge and new ways of being. I discovered this blog for example. I also discovered and have been integrating Non-Violent Communication into my listening and communication style. I have also focused much more on the positive and the positive possibilities—rather than “what could go wrong?” There has been so much more—not least of which is a deepening love I have for my fiance.
I agree wholeheartedly that transitions can be scary. But, when faced full-on, they really are opponents worthy of respect for the learning and growth that they engender. I agree with the saying that “God does not bring us challenges we cannot handle.”
I have been through a really bad break up very recently and my ex got married two days back. He is my colleague and I need to face him with his new wife in two weeks and I am at times terrified about this new transition. A part of me wants to be graceful and I used to do lot of favors to him even while he was planning to leave me. Your “Good Guy Contract” helped me wean him out largely. But the tendency is not completely gone and I find myself bending backwards at times to be nice to him. I am an atheist and I am not even sure if deliberate chanting of anything will help me. Do you have any suggestions for me?
I want to thank you for your response to my question about seeing chronic illness as a transition. I printed your reply and read it often. And I’ve shared it with others.
I had been living with my fiance in Sweden for the past year. Upon coming home, I decided after a few weeks to move from my home state to another city in order to find more opportunities. My fiance moves to the US in February of next year. Needless to say, it is tough.
My transition into Sweden lacked grace and it was something that I wish could have been better. Once more, today, I find myself overwhelmed by being in a new place, looking for work, and spending time alone when my sister (who I live with) is away during the week.
I searched your archives because I anticipated that you would have written something that would cause me to think carefully about my reactions. Who knew I would find a post that is so spot on. I believe that documenting this transition is a wonderful idea. Hopefully, it will allow me to, one day, teach someone else similarly to how you have done for me today.
Thanks again. 🙂